Learn Humility from Children
Have you learned anything from children—either yours or someone else’s? If you’ve had any interaction with kids, the answer is probably yes. I’ve learned a lot in my three short years of parenting, including the names of construction vehicles (I can now distinguish between a backhoe and an excavator!), the make and model of every truck on the road (or so it feels), and a host of other information that my son finds fascinating. Of course, it’s not only facts that I’ve learned. Other lessons are still in progress, such as patience, compassion . . . and humility.
Perhaps you think of your own son or daughter as a teacher of humility because they expose your own pride, not because they’re so humble themselves. However, in his Gospel, Matthew repeatedly uses children not only as foils of arrogance in both the disciples and Pharisees, but also as examples of true, God-honoring humility.
Self-Forgetful and Free from Fear
It was a common question among the twelve: “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1). Fishing for compliments, anyone? Likely the disciples thought the answer would include at least one, if not all, of them. They probably expected Jesus to say that His closest friends would be considered the greatest in the kingdom. But, as usual, they got an answer they didn’t expect. Jesus beckoned a nearby child and said,
“Truly I tell you . . . unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3–4)
If you’ve got kids at home now, or if you’ve ever spent more than a few minutes with one, you may be wondering why Jesus would call a child humble. After all, kids can be just as selfish and braggadocious as any adult. However, Jesus uses a child to highlight a quality unique to most children: self-forgetfulness.
Yes, they certainly can grapple with the fear of man, but often children are blissfully oblivious of others’ opinions of them. They’re not embarrassed to wear their pajamas in public. They’re not afraid to play games that make them look absolutely ridiculous. (Have you ever watched a blindfolded child trying to break a piñata?) They’re not ashamed to talk about Jesus in front of other people. I believe it’s this type of self-forgetfulness that Jesus lauds in children.
The Savior desires for His disciples to live free from the fear of people, something the original twelve certainly struggled with. Within a few weeks, they would all abandon the Savior in His time of need; one would deny ever having known Him, and one would betray Him with a kiss. Why the abandonment? Why the denials? The answer is simple: fear.
Thankfully, the disciples’ story doesn’t end there. The faithful eleven, once indwelt by the Holy Spirit and changed by their Savior-King, would check their fear at the door and proclaim the gospel with boldness and temerity, with no fear of the consequences.
The same freedom is available to us through the cross. Check out Paul’s encouragement to Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Tim. 1:7).
As blood-bought believers united with Christ, we have no cause for fear and no reason to obsess over ourselves.
Willing to Ask for Help
Though a chapter earlier Jesus had told His disciples to welcome children, in chapter 19 we find them doing just the opposite. Perhaps they were annoyed by the recent attempt at entrapment perpetrated by the Pharisees (Matt. 19:1–12). Perhaps they were trying to protect their Master’s time. Perhaps they thought the children were disingenuous in their motivation. Whatever the reason, when children were brought to the Messiah for intercession and prayer, the disciples rebuked them. Jesus, in turn, rebuked the disciples:
Jesus said, “Leave the little children alone, and don’t try to keep them from coming to me, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)
The message seems to be nearly a carbon-copy of what Matthew recorded in chapter 18, but with a fresh lesson in humility. Matthew records that the children were coming to Jesus for a specific purpose: that He would “place his hands on them and pray” (19:13). In short, these young disciples saw that they needed Jesus. We get no more details on why they needed Him; we only see that they came to Him for help.
A mark of true humility is the ability to seek help when necessary. An “I-do-it-myself” attitude may yield results, but more likely it will reap mistakes, burn-out, or failure. God in His infinitude—unlimited power, unfettered wisdom, unrestricted knowledge, unfathomable love—created us humans to be finite. Part of our creaturehood is to live within boundaries. And we hate it. Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we want to be like God.
Author and Bible teacher Jen Wilkin puts it this way:
Rather than worship and trust in the omniscience of God, we desire to be all-knowing ourselves. Rather than celebrate and revere His omnipotence, we seek ultimate power in our own spheres of influence. Rather than rest in the immutability of God, we point to our own calcified sin patterns and declare ourselves unchanging and unchangeable.”1
Children teach us that humility comes through admitting our weakness and coming to the Savior for help. Though His Spirit equips us and gifts us for working within the Body of Christ, and though He graciously grants to each one talents and abilities to work and to create, we are still dust (Psalm 103:14). We must come like children into the lap of the Savior, humbly asking for His gracious intercession—a gift we are guaranteed because of His death, resurrection, and ascension:
- “Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
- “Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them. ” (Hebrews 7:25, emphasis added)
Unashamed to Worship
Matthew gives us one more glimpse of the children, just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. After His raucous arrival in town, Jesus continues making waves by going into the Temple, flipping over tables, and putting an end to the avarice of the vendors. As if this weren’t enough to rile up the religious elite, He stayed in the temple to heal the blind and lame (Matt. 21:12–14). Matthew records that the children in the temple broke out in praise at Jesus’ healing power, crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (21:15).
At first, I thought they were just part of the crowd praising Jesus as He rode into town on a borrowed donkey. But Matthew specifically says that the children were in the temple (v. 15). By the time Jesus had unceremoniously put an end to the sale of doves in the temple, the worship service that had taken place on His way into town had undoubtedly finished. Yet the children kept singing.
Not the disciples. Not the crowds. Certainly not the Pharisees. The children.
These kids recognized the amazing work of Jesus, and they couldn’t help but praise Him because of it. They didn’t hold back because of their audience. They burst forth with praise because of His mighty works.
I wish the same could be said of me.
I’m much more like the quiet disciples who in a week’s time will skitter like cockroaches in the light. I have much more in common with the Pharisees who are outraged at the breach in decorum made by these children. I am far too concerned with my own reputation to sing praises to the King whenever and wherever I see His work. How about you?
Humble servants of the King—like these children in the temple—aren’t ashamed to sing or speak their worship. They will give glory to their King, regardless of the cost to their reputation, their livelihood, their comfort, or even their lives.
May we learn humility from the children in Matthew, living in self-forgetful freedom from fear, willing dependence on God, and unashamed worship of the King.
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Jen Wilkin, None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 23.